Why You Have to See The Master in 70mm
In Los Angeles, when a film is referred to as "70mm" it usually means that the Aero is playing 2001 again. New releases in the format -- which, as implied by its name, is a type of film stock larger and more expansive than standard 35mm -- are relatively rare these days, with most effects-driven movies opting for 3D or IMAX instead. So when it was announced that The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson's long-awaited followup to There Will Be Blood, would be opening in that most high-resolution of formats, many a cinephile was tantalized.
The good news is that, unlike IMAX and its dreaded counterpart "Lie-MAX," every theater playing The Master this weekend is screening it as it's meant to be shown. The bad news is that there are only two of them: Arclight Hollywood (see it in the Dome) and the Landmark. A national rollout begins on the 21st, at which time you'll need to be more careful in choosing where to watch it -- which should be done in 70mm or not at all. Seeing a post-converted 3D film in 2D is one thing, but to watch something as ambitious as this in any format other than the one it was made in would be as detrimental to your own viewing experience as it is to the film itself.
Not that the film would appear to lend itself to this sort of thing. There are no explosions, superheroes, or chase sequences of any kind. Its premise -- a drifter played by Joaquin Phoenix comes under the strange tutelage of Philip Seymour Hoffman's L. Ron Hubbard-inspired title character in 1950 -- is clearly that of an autumn prestige picture rather than a summer blockbuster. But at this point, a new work by the decidedly un-prolific Anderson is as much of an event in the art-house world as one by Terrence Malick: The Master is only his second film since 2002.
It's also one that makes good on its use of the now-rarefied format from the very first frame. Its opening sequence, which is also its most formally accomplished, comes across as a coordinated attempt on the part of Anderson, Phoenix, and composer Jonny Greenwood to disorient us in a way we can't help but like. Roiling waves crash to shore, coconuts are lopped off a tree with a machete, and Greenwood's score comes in and out at intentionally off-putting intervals as a group of sailors idle away and start trouble on a beach in the South Pacific. It's a self-contained symphony of discomfort, not to mention a sly means of putting us in the same frayed headspace as Phoenix's Freddie Quell.
Freddie immediately comes off as restless within the confines of the naval unit in which we first find him, rudderless when left to his own devices in the aftermath of the war. His at first seems to be a PTSD-inflected malaise of the postwar variety (in an early scene, he's spoken to by a military doctor about his "nervous condition"), but we see throughout the film that something deeper, more fundamental has been plaguing him for years.
After Phoenix gave what I felt was 2010's finest performance in what many others considered a failed experiment, I'm Still Here, the film's effect on his career seemed potentially dire. Suffice to say that this is quite the return. Phoenix is one of few actors who can make every line on his face expressive without even speaking; in 70mm, the effect is amplified tenfold. His physicality here is at times frightening, and easily on par with his quieter, more cerebral qualities -- referred to more than once as a "scoundrel" and "silly animal," he more than lives up to both descriptions.
Up next: Anderson beats around the bush for two hours, but we don't care